Friday, January 06, 2006

A Perfect Pop Album

The Beatles perfected the form of the pop album; a series of short, catchy, well-crafted songs, inventive arrangements, and a 'feel' that binds the whole together that reached its zenith with Revolver but marks all their earlier output. Naturally enough, the overarching influence of the band on the music of the 1960s led their competitors down the same road. Thus, in many ways, this period is considered the golden era of the pop album and with bands such as The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Who, Jefferson Airplane all producing masterpieces of the form, it certainly states a strong claim to be so.

But, despite the fragmentation of rock post-mid-1960s-pyschedelia into an ever expanding series of streams, many of which chose (such as progressive rock, heavy metal and jazz rock) to move well beyond the 45 rpm single length song as the basic building block, an adherence to and love of the pop album was maintained. You had to look deeper, as many of the finest records (such as Big Star's influential first two albums) were not much more than cult favorites, but the music was always there. From time to time the style would gain a name - Power Pop being one such in currency in the late 1970s/1980s.

But the essentials remained largely the same, all based on the classic guitar, bass, drums rock band line-up established with the original early 1960s beat boom. Fashionable accessories - organ, various keyboards, synthesizer - might be added to the mix but always in a coloristic manner; not as the base.

With such a weight of history behind the style, one might think that later efforts would be hampered by a lack of originality and to some extent that is true. There is always a slightly nostalgic subtext at work when listening to new pop albums while simultaneously being thoroughly aware of their precursors. However, this diminishes to vanishing point when listening to a truly well-made record and one such is Positive Touch by The Undertones.

By the time of that album's release The Undertones had already established themselves as a superb pop/punk band in the Ramones/Buzzcocks manner, but Positive Touch is quite a different animal from their prior work. Firstly the band almost completely abandon the guitar roar of The Undertones and Hypnotized for a much more layered, strummed, picked and altogether more carefully constructed guitar sound. The volume level is greatly reduced, keyboards and horns introduced here and there and Feargal Sharkey is allowed to make full expressive use of that remarkable voice of his.

One might also add that the bands melodic sense reached full-flower here, but in someways that would be inaccurate as the band had always possessed an unerring understanding of the melodic essence of great pop music. Nonetheless, the varied instrumentation and added textural touches allowed the melodies to shine as never before.

So far, so very good, but what makes Positive Touch a truly great album is the sustained mood of disillusionment, hypocrisy, and foreboding that underpins all the material. Perhaps most overtly demonstrated in the long delayed single release from the album It's Going To Happen, an oblique commentary on the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time with more specific - although not directly stated - reference to the hunger strike and eventual death of IRA member Bobby Sands. The song primarily focuses on the futility and repetitiveness of the struggle moving from generation to generation without resolution. Such themes run through most of the songs; in one sense this is a very jaded and cynical record but it has a much lighter tone than that might suggest. More, it is effort to make the listener penetrate the unconsidered assumptions of whatever life he or she may be living to see the framework beneath clearly in all its strengths and weaknesses.

Heavy stuff, perhaps, but this album in no way preaches or hits you over the head. What it does do is to draw you deeply into its mood and leaves you, as the final cut, the aptly named Forever Paradise fades out in psychedelic weirdness, feeling that you have been taken somewhere, learnt something and been brought home again.

As such, it closely resembles the earlier but near-contemporary Buzzcocks masterpiece A Different Kind Of Tension but that record is a far more flat-out punk/rock recording. One thing is sure - as a record of the slow boil in British society that was about to explode into nationwide riots and burnings, Positive Touch accurately chronicles that tension (if not its specifics) more than any other record.

Of its time and out of its time, like all the greatest music, Positive Touch is easily one of the very greatest rock albums ever made.

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